When Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash was announced on television, my initial reaction was a jolt of anxious memory. Forty years after the first time I did it, I flashed to a half-second image of me nervously ringing a doorbell.
Delivering terrible news is never good. I hated doing it as a cop. Driving to a house with information that would shatter a person’s world was never a pleasant experience.
It’s different with celebrities. We knew about Kobe but didn’t actually know him. The news was certainly bad for Kobe’s fans. But what about people whose fan base is significantly smaller? Someone still has to deliver the news personally.
During my time as a cop, the departments I worked for had no chaplains, grief counselors or victim advocates. Death notifications were up to the officer on duty.
We got the news from the dispatcher — a name, an address and a phone number for the recipients to call for information about why their loved one wouldn’t be coming home ever again.
Veteran cops said the best way to handle it was to be direct. Get in, get out, and get gone. Grieving people don’t need the cops hanging around.
Wrong. But what did I know at the time?
As a result, I initially handled things badly. I worked in a place where I was the only officer on duty. I’d knock on the door and ask the person who answered if he or she was (name here).
Person • “Yeah. What’s wrong?”
Me • “Is Earl your son?”
Person • “Yes. What’s that fool kid doing now?”
What do you say after that?
Yes, people’s reactions varied, ranging from stunned silence to complete hysterics. A woman once even took a swing at me. Then there was the woman who, when I explained that her husband had been found dead, just shrugged and said, “Figures.”
Over time, I got better at it. Moving to a larger police department helped because then someone might go with me. That didn’t change the reactions, but at least I wasn’t alone. If the shocked parties fainted, I had help catching them.
People process sudden grief in different ways. Just because they don’t act traumatized doesn’t mean they aren’t. So I would try to stick around long enough to make sure they weren’t alone in their grief.
The last thing I wanted was for them to work themselves into a state where another death notification was needed. But it wasn’t always up to me. Sometimes the door was slammed in my face.
On the positive side, even I can learn. People are communal animals, and bad news seems easier to handle with support. Ten years ago, when I got the news that my brother had died from a drug overdose, I handled it better because someone was with me.
Anyway, after getting the information that needed delivering, I would go to a house on the next block over and ask the neighbors there if they knew the people I needed to find.
Often these people were in the same Latter-day Saint congregation. And even if the soon-to-be-sad didn’t go to church, they were at least known. Then I would get someone from the ward or the neighborhood to go with me.
If I drove past the house later, there might be several cars in front. People might be standing on the porch with food and cleaning supplies.
Bad news comes knocking on all our doors. When it does, it isn’t how we handle it that matters most. It’s how those around us make sure we still matter.
Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.